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The IT revolution comes to transport

January 8th, 2017 84 comments

One of the striking features of technological progress over the past fifty years or so has been that of incredibly rapid progress in information and communications technology, combined with near-stasis in most other sectors. Here’s what I wrote on the topic in 2003, and could have reposted, essentially unchanged, a decade later

On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.

In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.

At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.

Quite suddenly, this looks out of date. Electric cars, drones and, most significantly, self-driving vehicles have been transformed from curiosities (or, in the case of drones, military hardware with no apparent positive value to humanity) to the likely transport technologies of the near future.

There have been quite a few thinkpieces about these topics, particularly self-driving vehicles, but nothing I’ve seen has been really satisfactory to me. The central focus has been on the challenge of introducing imperfect self-driving vehicles to our current road network. But if we’ve learned anything from the last fifty years (from electronic watches to desktop publishing to digital cameras) it’s that, whatever the initial limitations, a technology that’s been digitised will inevitably improve to the point where it outperforms the analog competition on just about every dimension.

So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions

* what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;

and, more importantly,

* if unskilled or careless human drivers are more dangerous to fellow road users and pedestrians than self-driving vehicles, should they be allowed to drive at all?

To spell out the second point a bit further, if self-driving vehicles are readily available and affordable (and particularly if self-driving technology can be retrofitted to existing vehicles), there’s no argument from the necessity of personal mobility to give speeders and drunk drivers multiple chances to kill other road users. The fact that these people might enjoy driving themselves is scarcely relevant. In fact, to the extent that enjoyable driving is dangerous driving (and, in my limited experience, it mostly is), it’s an argument against allowing it.

Just writing this, I can imagine the ferocity of the responses. I suspect that policies on self-driving cars will turn out to be a long-running front in the endless culture wars in which we seem to be permanently enmeshed.

There’s a lot more to think about here, but that’s enough to be going on with.

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Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

December 16th, 2016 24 comments

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.
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Time’s up for ageing alarmists

October 10th, 2016 48 comments

That’s the (slightly ambiguous) headline for my latest piece in Inside Story. The central argument will be familiar to readers here. While the term “ageing population” is presented as a reason for gloom, this is a fallacy of composition. What’s actually happening is that, as individuals of any age, we are less likely to die than we use to be. Since dying is usually preceded by sickness and disability, it’s also true that, as individuals of any age, we are less likely to be sick and disabled. This is 100 per cent good news.

After publishing this I was pointed to an interesting article, maybe in the LA Times, which I didn’t note down, something like “a new view of aging”. If anyone else has seen it, maybe they could post a link. Also, there was a piece in Nature claiming 115 as an upper limit to the human lifespan. I think the conclusion is right, but the supporting analysis looked pretty dodgy to me, essentially based on two data points: namely that the longest lived and second longest lived people known to us both died in the 1990s and no one has matched them since. Still, at least Joe Hockey will be happy.

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Christmas repost

December 26th, 2015 22 comments

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

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The economist as Grinch

December 7th, 2015 51 comments

The Economic Society of Australia has started running a panel in which economists are asked to give their views on policy questions. I wasn’t too happy with the last one, on penalty rates, where I thought the question was ill-posed, and the majority of responses (though by no means all of them) failed to address the basic microeconomics of the issue.

The latest is a more light-hearted one, asking for responses to the proposition

“Giving specific presents as holiday gifts is inefficient, because recipients could satisfy their preferences much better with cash.”

Rather than give an opinion, I took the argument to its logical conclusion, as follows

The obvious problem with this claim is that exchanging cash is also inefficient, especially when combined with the generally accepted norm that equals should give presents of equal value. This results in a costly exercise that nets out to zero. Anyone who accepts the stated proposition shoud be in favor of cancelling Xmas and relying on the existing intra-family tax-transfer system

Armistice Day

November 11th, 2015 42 comments

As Armistice Day comes around again, I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last, bringing nothing but ruin and destruction to all concerned. And yet, opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic.

My annual ritual of writing a post on this day hasn’t helped at all. I’ve repeatedly had it explained to me by learned commenters that the mass slaughter of 1914 to 1918 (and, by implication, the even more massive slaughter that followed it over the 20th century) was a right and necessary response to German imperialism, or that it must be understood in its historical context. I need only change a few place names, and substitute different enemies, to hear the voices of our present leaders, explaining the need for our armed forces to deliver more death and destruction, because “we must do something”. The fact that our current enemies are of our own direct creation, and that a decade or more of these wars has succeeded only it making matters worse, seems irrelevant.

Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so.

Against that, however, is the ever-present shadow of nuclear cataclysm. The world has managed to survive, permanently within a few minutes of catastrophe, for 70 years now. But can that continue indefinitely? when belief in the rightness of war and the need for military strength is such a powerful force among ordinary people, and even stronger among the rulers who have the power to launch these weapons. Without radical changes in thinking, it seems almost certain that nuclear weapons will be used, sooner or later. Even a limited nuclear war, between India and Pakistan for example, would be a disaster as bad or worse than the World Wars of the 20th century.

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Flogging a live horse

October 25th, 2015 49 comments

A while back, I mentioned in passing the failure of the Queensland Greyhound Racing Board to do anything about notorious industry practices such as live baiting and the slaughter and dumping of dogs that failed to run fast enough. But, even if these practices were well known, the perpetrators made some effort to hide them. By contrast, the practice of whipping racehorses to make them run faster is open and unchallenged. Can there be any justification for this beyond “it’s always been done this way”?

Obviously, there’s no inherent interest in the absolute speed attained by the horses, just in the race between them. There’s no obvious reason why a race without whips would be any less interesting. And if we wanted to see the horses go as fast as possible, we’d allow the use of stimulant drugs.

Apparently, defenders of the practice have made the claim that it doesn’t hurt the horses. That’s ludicrous on the face of it – if it didn’t hurt obviously it wouldn’t work – and has been shown to be untrue.

I’d be interested to know about the legal position. Again on the face of things, whipping horses would seem to be illegal cruelty to animals. Is there a special exemption, or has the proposition never been tested?

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Bernie Fraser: A brief appreciation

September 9th, 2015 13 comments

Bernie Fraser has just resigned as Chairman of the Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a Member. His chairmanship marked the culmination of a long career of public service, in which Bernie served as both Secretary of the Treasury and Governor of the Reserve Bank. Over many years, I’ve sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with Bernie on particular policy issues, but I’ve always found him to be committed to serving the Australian people and to a broad and humane view of our collective interests. At a personal level, he’s a great person to deal with and work with. He will be a big loss to the Authority, but we have made arrangements to carry on our work.

One of my Twitter followers asked for a post on which people might write appreciative comments, and here it is. If you want to discuss anything else (climate change policy, macro policy in the 1980s and 1990s, the future of the CCA) I’ll be opening a sandpit for this purpose.

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Demography and irreligion

July 31st, 2015 11 comments

A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.

Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
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Happiness and unhappiness

June 30th, 2015 53 comments

I have a chapter in a newly released book on happiness, extracts of which have been published in The Conversation. My argument, summed up as Measures of happiness tell us less than economics of unhappiness, is a reworking of points I’ve made in the past. In particular, I argue that it’s more useful to think about removing avoidable sources of unhappiness, and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state.

Categories: Books and culture, Life in General Tags:

Reversing reverse parking (update)

June 22nd, 2015 42 comments

Back in 2013, I gave a rare nod of praise to the Newman government for a proposal to get rid of reverse parallel parking in the test for new drivers. I’m happy to say that this has actually happened. The new test will focus on safe driving, rather than on skills that might come in handy for drivers, like reverse parking or changing the oil.

The original post is over the fold

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The inevitability of red tape

March 27th, 2015 23 comments

I have a piece in The Guardian pointing out that the Abbott government’s Red Tape Reduction program is basically cover for a couple of big measures benefit the mining and gambling industries.

A bigger question raised by the piece: why does bureaucracy and red tape seem to grow without limits? Anyone who has ever worked as an academic, faced with a proliferation of pro-vice-chancellors, executive deans and multiple layers of hierarchy has certainly asked this question, and there’s nothing unusual about academics. The uselessness of administrators is the central theme of the comic strip Dilbert, popular in offices around the world.

The obvious explanations are
(a) stupidity; and
(b) administrative bloat benefits administrators and they are the ones who make the decisions

I don’t think either of these works adequately. Stupidity is certainly common, but the phenomenon is too pervasive to be explained in this way. As regards administrative self-interest, the problem is that senior executives could potentially gain a lot by cutting mid-level bureaucracy, and many have tried (remember ‘flatter organizations’ and ‘lean and mean’).

My own hypothesis is that every big mistake (for example, an undetected embezzlement or a mishandled episode of harassment) produces a permanent bureaucratic response designed to prevent a recurrence. This is very costly to reverse (who wants to deal with the first big embezzlement just after they downsized the accounting department) even if it would, in some sense, be less costly to put up with occasional failures. Moreover, for both good and bad reasons, I think we are, as a society, becoming less tolerant of institutional failures across a wide range of activities (systematic wrongdoing by financial institutions is a major counterexample but, I think, exceptional). So, we have more checks and balances, and more bureaucrats to enforce them.

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Predictions for 2015

January 15th, 2015 63 comments

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr is supposed to have said. I’ve certainly found it so. Apart from the obvious possibility of being wrong, there’s the risk that others will misrepresent you. But, as long as you don’t take it too seriously, it’s helpful to frame discussion around a sharp prediction. So here are three for 2015

1. Peak Oil: I predict that global oil production (conventional and shale etc) will decline in 2015 and will never again reach the peak level of 2014. My reasoning is that 2014 supply can’t be sustained at prices below, say, $75, and (given a downward underlying trend in the developed world), 2014 demand won’t be reached again at prices above $75.

2. The End of Bitcoin: I’ve written in the past that “Bitcoins will attain their true value of zero sooner or later, but it is impossible to say when.” However, I now think the necessary conditions are in place for most holders of Bitcoins to recognise that their asset consists of used-up computation cycles with zero value. In particular, because mainstream merchants now accept Bitcoin (which they immediately sell), it’s possible for hardcore believers to dispose of their holdings without explicitly betting that the price will fall. Of course, the price won’t fall precisely to zero, but it should be well below $100 by the end of the year, and below $10 not long after that.

3. The Paris conference on climate change, will produce a half-baked compromise, which nevertheless represents progress towards stabilization at 2 degrees of warming: OK, this is pretty much a no-brainer, given that this is what we’ve been seeing ever since Kyoto in 1997, but I want to be sure of getting at least one right.

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Remembrance Day

November 11th, 2014 59 comments

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

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Brands of nonsense

October 31st, 2014 56 comments

That’s the title of a piece of mine the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a little while ago. It’s paywalled but they have graciously given me permission to republish it here.

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Eyes of the world on Brisbane (G20), Department of the Absurd

October 29th, 2014 49 comments

Channel 9 News yesterday had a story about how the massive worldwide TV audience for G20 news coverage will discover that

* Brisbane has graffiti
* Roma St Transit Centre is ugly.

In reality of course, they will discover that we have a Convention Centre and hotels, providing backdrops for political leaders to pontificate about nothing much.

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Three things the US has (just about) seen the last of [Crooked Timber Crosspost]

October 27th, 2014 121 comments

Here’s an assorted list of things that once seemed archetypally American, but have pretty much reached the end of the line. More precisely, there are no new ones, or hardly any, and the existing examples look increasingly down at heel

    Shopping malls
    Nuclear power stations
    Republican intellectuals

Feel free to discuss, deny, add to the list and so on.

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Legal reasoning (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 15th, 2014 28 comments

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court’s non-decision on equal marriage has caused plenty of debate, including John Holbo’s smackdown of NR’s Matthew Franck.

The discussion got me thinking about the broader problem of legal reasoning, at least in its originalist and textualist forms, and also in precedent-based applications of common law. The assumption in all of these approaches is that by examining (according to some system of rules) what was legislated or decided in the past, lawyers and judges can determine the law as it applies to the case at hand. There are all sorts of well-known difficulties here, such as how words written a century ago should apply to technologies and social structures that did not exist at the time. And it often happens that these approaches produce results that seem unacceptable to most people but for which a legislative or constitutional fix is impossible for some reason.

It’s always seemed to me, though, that there is a much bigger problem with this approach, namely the implicit assumption that “the law” actually exists. That is, it is assumed that, if the appropriate procedure is used to interpret the inherited text, and applied to the problem at hand, it will produce a determinate answer. But why should this be true? The same law might contain contradictory clauses, supported by contradictory arguments, voted in by different majorities, and understood at the time of its passage in contradictory ways. Most notably, the same constitution might grant universal freedoms in one place, while recognising slavery in another.

At a minimum, such contradictions mean that there is no determinate law on the particular points of difference. But the problem is worse than this. The law rarely prescribes an exact answer in a specific case. The standard view of legal reasoning is the principles can be extracted from case law, then applied to new cases. But contradictory laws and contradictory cases produce contradictory principles. The ultimate stopping point is the paradox of entailment: a contradiction implies anything and everything.

I don’t have a fully worked out answer to this problem but I think it underlies a lot of the disquiet so many people feel about legal reasoning (apart from the ordinary disappointment when the answer it produces isn’t the one we want).

Rabbitohs and memory

October 11th, 2014 52 comments

In the course of a recent minor tiff on Twitter, accused of bandwagon jumping, I asserted that I had not only supported the Rabbitohs since (just) before their last premiership, but that I was old enough to remember actual rabbitohs, that is, itinerant sellers of rabbit meat. Now I’m wondering whether I’m conflating rabbit as an occasional treat with bottle-ohs, early recyclers who, as the name implies, went door to door collecting bottles. I can definitely remember a bottle-oh with a horse-drawn cart (this would have been around 1960 in Adelaide).

Any other readers of a certain age want to weigh in?

Also, is there a word for Twittertiffs?

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Give to MS research, or asylum seekers

October 10th, 2014 1 comment

I have about a week to go before my MS Swimathon, and haven’t yet heard the voice of the public on whether I should go the full Tony in my post-event photo. I’m going to set the default to “No”, and require five Yes votes, accompanied by $20 (or more) donations to change that.

If you’d rather give to an activist cause, I’ve been asked to advertise Esther Gyorki’s half-marathon run supporting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

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MS Swimathon Appeal

October 5th, 2014 4 comments

I’m doing another of my fundraisers, this time for Multiple Sclerosis. I’m in a team of six people who will do a 12 hour swim relay in a couple of weeks. So, I get to swim two hours, which I’ve never done before. I’m a bit worried about foot cramps, which tend to be the biggest constraint on my swimming (apart from my appalling technique). But, if that happens, I’ll do the two hours in separate stages. So, you can be fairly sure of getting your money’s worth.

As an added inducement, anyone who donates at least $20 gets to vote on the “Tony Abbott question”. Should I post a pic in budgie-smugglers after the event. Feel free to debate, but only those who donate get a say, just like in real life politics.

Form letter, with details, over the fold

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Categories: Life in General, Sport Tags:

Events

September 4th, 2014 1 comment

I’ll be at a session of Brisbane Writers Festival tomorrow talking on Advance Australia Fair (inequality and all that).

Also, with about 50 000 others, I’ll be running Bridge to Brisbane on Sunday.I haven’t got around to setting up my charity page for this, but please give to the good cause of your choice.

More events soon.

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The “Other Operation” (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

August 27th, 2014 12 comments

Like others, I’m mystified by the “ice bucket challenge” in which, as I understand it, people agree to have a bucket of ice water dumped over their heads, rather than giving money to charity. This is reminiscent of the famous Piranha Brothers’ “Other Operation”, in which they threatened not to beat their victims up if they did not pay them the so-called “protection money”.

Still, it seems as if there is some interest in variants on the standard fundraising challenge in which you pay money to charity to encourage friends, bloggers, C-list celebrities to do difficult, painful or humiliating things. It’s struck me that my upcoming participation in the Sunshine Coast 70.3 Triathlon provides a nice twist on the ice bucket challenge.
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A quick question

July 12th, 2014 30 comments

I ate at my local Italian restaurant just now and, as often happens, the credit card call didn’t go through, so I signed instead of using a PIN. Given that the banks have announced this won’t be possible in a few months time what will they do about this fairly common problem? Any experts out there?

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Anzac Day, 99 years on

April 25th, 2014 Comments off

Another Anzac Day. A solemn occasion to remember the heroism and sacrifice of those who died and to recall with horror the waste of young lives in a war of rival empires. Australians had no quarrel with Turks, nor they with us. And, in the Middle East, as elsewhere, the war achieved nothing and resolved nothing, but rather generated and inflamed conflicts that continue to this day.

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What happiness conceals

March 31st, 2014 48 comments

For quite some time, I’ve been saying that research effort into the economics of happiness would be better devoted to researching unhappiness. I’ve now presented this argument in the excellent online magazine Aeon, with the takeaway

So, perhaps we need a new research programme, to examine how unhappiness really works. Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? Is striving after more and better possessions more fulfilling than satisfaction with what you have? It’s obvious from the way I’ve posed these questions what I believe the answer to be. But genuine research into the economics of unhappiness might yield some surprising answers to such questions as these, and reveal new questions that we have never before considered.

The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

February 15th, 2014 67 comments

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
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Alanna Skelly petition

February 13th, 2014 48 comments

Also, reposting this petition appeal from Alanna Skelly, who used to comment here as “Alice” and “Alanna Hardman”. Please keep discussion thoughtful and civil

Hello!

I’ve started the petition “Tony Abbott: Stop all our banks accommodating BITCOIN transactions.” and need your help to get it off the ground.

Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here’s the link:

http://www.change.org/petitions/tony-abbott-stop-all-our-banks-accommodating-bitcoin-transactions

Here’s why it’s important:

Please stop BITCOIN in Australia because our youth are using this method to buy drugs from online sites across the globe. The drug sellers are mushrooming becausing BITCOIN is operating a tumbler style of making the ultimate recipient of the drug money untraceable. Our children are dying. Children in the US are dying. Please support this petition because I have just lost my twenty one year old son to the online drug trade. Its not the little fish the police need to go after. First stop BITCOIN from hiding these criminals. Make it illegal for any Australian financial institution to deal with BITCOIN accounts. Without the might and IT expertise of BITCOIN these criminals who despatch toxic substances can not hide themselves. The beautiful kind hearted boy in this photo has died before he should have. This petition has been written by his mother.

You can sign my petition by clicking here.

Thanks!
Alanna Skelly

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Alanna Skelly petition

December 29th, 2013 Comments off

Long-term readers of the comments section will recall Alanna Skelly, who posted here as “Alanna” and “Alice”. Yesterday, I received from her the sad news that she had lost her son to an overdose of drugs, purchased online using Bitcoin. Alanna has started a petition on change.org, asking that banks should stop facilitating such transactions by accommodating Bitcoin.

Readers will have different views on the policy issues, but this isn’t the occasion to discuss them, so there will be no comments on this post. Those who would like to support the petition can follow the link above.

Regardless of our politics, I’m sure everyone here will join me in extending to Alanna and her family our deepest sympathies.

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Who should be licensed to use the road?

December 5th, 2013 101 comments

I’ve seen a number of interesting things in relation to road safety lately, some of which have caused me to revise my thoughts.

First, there’s the question of retesting for older drivers. This seemed self-evidently desirable to me, based on data showing very high fatality rates per km driven and that in most collision involving older (75+) drivers they are at fault. However, a Twitter discussion (must work out how to do Storify!) following this Background Briefing showed that things aren’t nearly so clear-cut. The fatality evidence isn’t really helpful, since it just reflects the fact that an accident is more likely to be fatal to an older person than to a younger one. The differential hazard is far greater for falls, which suggests that forcing older people out of cars may not be beneficial. And overall, the evidence on the benefits of testing appears to be mixed at best (the Monash expert quoted in BB overstates the case a bit, in my view).

More directly relevant to me (at least for the next decade or two) there are some suggestions regarding cyclist: a one-meter clearance requirement for cars , relaxation of abolition of helmet laws and requirements for licensing, rego and third-party insurance. The first is obviously sensible, the big issue being enforcement. On the third, I agree in principle with licensing and TPI, the main problem being what to do about children. Registration seems undesirable until we have a proper system of road pricing.

On helmets, I’m genuinely ambivalent, particularly after witnessing a head impact accident this morning (no injury, thanks to helmet). I would always use a helmet, but I’m not happy about the claim that Australia should have different helmet laws than Europe because our roads are more dangerous, and our drivers more aggressive. Granted that this is true we need to change these conditions. The obvious first step would be to reduce the current 60/50 speed limits for suburban streets and subarterial roads respectively to 50/40. This would greatly benefit road users (including both cyclists and older drivers) who can’t or don’t want to travel at or near existing speed limits. The welfare cost of slightly lower limits would, in my view, be trivial. I have zero sympathy for those (echoing smokers and polluters of all kinds) who want their convenience to justify imposing risks on others.

The other point though relates to those aggressive drivers. Whereas the evidence on older drivers is weak, there is ample evidence that aggressive driving, manifested particularly in traffic violations, is associated with higher crash risk, as is at-fault involvement in a previous crash. The current points system is absurdly lenient in this respect. The 12 point allowance lets drivers be convicted over a serious offence (running stop lights, speeding in a school zone etc) every year without any restriction on driving, and the suspension period for violators is only few months. I’d suggest a lifetime allowance of 24 points, with permanent restrictions thereafter, as well as reducing the three year allowance to 8 points, and increasing suspension periods.

The restrictive treatment of drivers at the older and younger ends of the age spectrum contrasts sharply with the treatment of a drivers license as a natural right for the 25-75 group, to be withdrawn only in extreme cases. In my view, aggressive drivers should be taken off the road to make them safer for the rest of us, including non-motorists and those whose reflexes aren’t sharp enough to cope with the high-speed high-risk driving of others.

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